Shinkai at its peak
Volume 23, Issue 2 (Film Review 1 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 17 August 2023.
A review of director Shinkai Makoto's animated film, Suzume no Tojimari, released in Japan in November, 2022.
Keywords: Shinkai Makoto, animation, cinema, Suzume no Tojimari.
Shinkai Makoto’s latest animation film, Suzume no Tojimari, was released in Japan on 11 November 2022. The film, consequently, was released in East Asia in March 2023, and the rest of the world in the following month. The film was ranked the third most watched film in Japanese theatres in 2022, even though it was only available for seven weeks from November. The most watched film in Japan in 2022 was One Piece Film: Red that was released on 6 August and was still being screened at the end of 2022 after 21 weeks. The second most watched film, Top Gun: Maverick, was released on 27 May, and again was still being screened at the end of that year. Even though Suzume no Tojimari was screened in theatres for a significantly shorter period, Shinkai’s film has been extremely successful. Not just through this film, his fame has been recognised since the mid-2010s by Kimi no na wa (Your Name, 2016) and Tenki no ko (Weathering with You, 2019). As no other Japanese director has produced any animation film that is more recognised than any of Shinkai’s last three films during this period, the question I raised in 2016 “Will Shinkai be the next Miyazaki?” has obviously been answered (Kimura, 2016).
In addition to audiences, Suzume no Tojimari has attracted many commercial entities for collaborative promotions. For example, while the main character, the female high school student named Suzume, is on her road trip, she eats a Big Mac at a McDonald’s restaurant. She recalls a childhood memory in which her mum (who passed away in the 311 earthquake in 2011 when she was a child) tells her that she would be able to eat a Big Mac after growing up. The fast-food company and Shinkai’s team even made a TV commercial for promotion of the burger and the film. Furthermore, 47 local companies from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures have been licensed to have partnerships with the film. Each of them has created collaborative posters with Shinkai’s latest film, and some have even made TV commercials for local TV stations. Japanese rock band, Roadwimps, responsible for making songs for Shinkai’s previous films such as Your Name and Weathering with You, has created a new song for Suzume no Tojimari entitled ‘Kanatahaluka’. The song, that has a catchy melody and lyrics, typical for a J-pop song, is played behind the TV commercials, as well as in the film itself. The “tie up” methods (see Kimura, 2020, p. 222) that have been used to sell the music with other consumable products is used to sell the film, Big Mac, and products made by smaller local companies targeting local consumers.
This kind of promotion usually targets nation-wide consumers, but the new strategy to target niche local markets has been effective and somehow appropriate, since Suzume no Tojimari is a road trip movie, in which Suzume travels from Kyushu to Tohoku across the archipelago (and back at the very end of the movie while the end role appears). From Miyazaki Prefecture, where Suzume is living with her aunt, she goes to Oita to catch a ferry to Shikoku. After travelling through Ehime, she lands on the main Japanese island of Honshu, hitch hiking to Kobe. She then catches a Shinkansen bullet train to Tokyo, and finally moves onto her hometown in Iwate after going through Kanto and Tohoku areas. Sceneries look realistic and beautiful. As the most recognised Japanese animator of the 21st Century, Shinkai is known for establishing his auteurism by utilising digital photography, setting the light source and adding digital filter effects to adjust the depth to make scenes look like three-dimensional. His animation is characterised by detailed depictions of scenes such as blue skies, star-filled skies, mountains, and cities that are found in real life when you travel around Japan. Unlike Shinkai’s previous films, for example, Weathering with You that is staged in Tokyo, Suzume travels across Japan. ‘Pilgrims’, who explore how and why fictional worlds became grafted onto real world locations (see Norris, 2013), are expected to visit various locations in Japan. Shinkai’s team has been aware of the ‘over tourism’ caused by the film. Shinkai’s team has already cautioned the pilgrims to behave if they decide to visit places that appear in or related to the film.
Unlike two other Japanese animation giants, Miyazaki Hayao and Anno Hideaki, who tend to make the audience guess at the themes of their films, Shinkai has been open about them. According to Shinkai, Suzume no Tojimari has three main themes.
1) The coming-of-age tale of Suzume who lost her mother in the 311 earthquake.
2) The comical love story of Suzume and Sota (who is transformed from a handsome young man to a chair by a psychic cat at an early point of the film).
3) The fate of Sota (and Suzume) who are responsible to close ‘doors’ all over Japan to prevent earthquakes.
These themes, coming-of-age, love story, and earthquakes, are familiar to Japanese audiences; thus the film delivers a realistic taste rather than that of fantasy, even though this is a fictional story. The voice actor for Suzume, Hara Nanoka, was born in 2003, and she is turning 20 this year, which is the coming-of-age moment in Japan, socially equivalent to the age of 21 in the English-speaking world. Shinkai, just like Miyazaki since the early 1990s, does not choose professional voice actors, but rather someone who can convey emotions that are shown in his animated expressions. Hara admits she is a fan of Shinkai, and tears come out of her when she was advised she would be voice acting for Suzume. Her real age, her love of Shinkai’s previous films, and her passion to take the role are the perfect receipt to act as Suzume, who is as fragile as Hara, a young actor in films and TV dramas, still seeking her own identity as a teenager. Where Suzume becomes emotional towards the end of the film, Radwimps’ song mede for the film Kanatahaluka orchestrates her emotion. The band that has produced songs for Shinkai’s previous films, Your Name (2016) and Weathering with You (2019), once again created another ideal song, which led to the band winning the best music award at the 46th Japan Academy Award in March 2023.
In Your Name (2016) and Weathering with You (2019), Shinkai features natural disasters such as a meteor strike and floods, as metaphors for the 311 earthquake that hit Japan in 2011. However, in Suzume no Tojimari, Shinkai has become direct: he does not use other types of natural disasters to imply the earthquake. After more than 10 years since the 311 earthquake, the time has come to face the largest earthquake in contemporary Japanese history that killed over 20,000 people—both for Shinkai and the audience.
In Suzume no Tojimari, Suzume and Sota (the speaking and moving chair) try to close doors (or gates) to prevent earthquakes that are triggered by a worm-like creature. When the creature falls from the sky, there is an earthquake. They must close doors, so the worm does not fall off. How earthquakes can be caused by the worm may be beyond comprehension to non-Japanese audiences, but this is not original to Shinkai. It was earlier used by Murakami Haruki in his “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” (1999), where a frog fights against a worm to stop an earthquake. Murakami’s idea is obviously linked to Japanese mythology, in which catfish are said to cause earthquakes. Will Shinkai’s use of the worm originating in mythology be ‘too Japanese’—a drawback to an international audience when the film becomes available outside Japan in 2023?
This is not the first time Shinkai’s films have adopted and adapted exclusively Japanese culture. Religious Shinto practices formed a key role in Your Name (2016), yet this film attracted a large international audience, especially in East Asia. Suzume no Tojimari should be no exception. It has a more direct approach to reveal sentiments of the Japanese people, especially with a focus on earthquakes that have impacted Japanese people and society throughout its history. In fact, I expect Suzume no Tojimari will be more acceptable to an international audience, especially to those who study Japan, due to Shinkai’s more direct stance in representing Japanese sentiments.
8. https://mobile.twitter.com/suzume_tojimari/status/1589905690021462016, accessed 31 December 2022.
9. The pamphlet Shinkai Makoto Hon that is given to audience in Japanese theatres—see p. 4.
10. It appeared that her mother looked after Suzume as a single mother—Japan has no dual custody system, or no child right to see both parents.
13. The English translation by Jay Rubin is found in Haruki Murakami. 2002. After the Quake. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (see “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”, pp. 111-140).
Kimura, T. (2016) ‘Will Shinkai Makoto be the Next Miyazaki?’, electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, 16(1), https://www.japanesestudies.org.uk/ejcjs/vol16/iss1/kimura.html, accessed 11 January 2023.
Kimura, T. (2020) ‘AKB48 and the Export of Kawaii Aesthetics through Indonesian JKT48’, in Kimura T., and Harris, J. (eds), Exporting Japanese Aesthetics: Evolution from Tradition to Cool Japan. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, pp. 220-248.
Norris, C. (2013) ‘A Japanese media pilgrimage to a Tasmanian bakery’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 14, pp. 1-16.
Article copyright Tets Kimura